Hi-Fi Rush and The Future of Gaming (for better or worse)

I’ve been interested in the seeming success and the narrative that has bubbled up around Tango Gameworks’ Hi-Fi Rush since it launched two months ago. And since I write slow, I’m just getting around to this now. The stylish action game with a rhythm element to its combat system is very good. It’s fun and polished and original is some ways. I played through it in just a couple sittings and was enjoying myself the whole time. It is deserving of any success that it has seen, with Bethesda recently boasting 2 million players on Twitter.

However, it’s success is undoubtedly dissimilar from the style of success that we are used to in the game’s industry these days. The thing you see people say about Hi-Fi Rush is that it’s reminiscent of the mid-tier or AA games of the mid-00s. Specifically the phrase “like a [insert early 3D console here] game” gets thrown around without ever really being defined. This is often positioned around originality, but I also think it’s fair to think about it in terms of scope. Games made by large studios have gotten larger, their budgets have gotten larger, and by extension their metrics for success have gotten…larger. For most games published by a company Microsoft’s size, 2 million players would not be seen as a big success, especially for a game like Hi-Fi Rush that doesn’t have additional monetization beyond the initial game sale.

But despite it’s smaller scope, the game still feels high budget in some regards. It is incredibly well polished, features impressive animation and spectacle, and includes a decent amount of licensed music. It certainly has nowhere near the budget of something like the upcoming Starfield, but it also doesn’t feel constrained by budget in any meaningful way. It also released out of nowhere, being announced during Microsoft’s direct presentation in January and released the same day. There was no year-long marketing build up, which helped the game achieve a certain level of surprise to go along with the freshness that it represents in the current games industry.

And all of this is inextricable from the fact that it is published by Microsoft. As Kaile Hunter astutely pointed out in their review of the game, “Hi-Fi Rush is the rare first-party AA game born with a silver spoon in its mouth, and it will absolutely benefit from that in a way basically no other game will ever even get the chance to.” Microsoft could guarantee that they would be able to reveal this game in a presentation that people would be turning into regardless, and that they could not only launch it immediately but also launch it on their Game Pass subscription platform. If Hi-Fi Rush was revealed six months ago and only sold for $30 USD, I might’ve purchased it if I was in the mood for something like it or the reception was super positive. But it being released at announcement on a service I already paid for gave it an unprecedented level of curiosity and availability that can only be done under these circumstances and that only Microsoft can truly capitalize on.

Not only that, but Microsoft is uniquely positioned to make games like this because of their investment in Game Pass being a success. The way money is made in AAA development these days is that you either make a game so huge that it makes an absurd amount of money on sales or you make a game that is infinitely monetizable after release. It’s why companies like Warner Bros. are having studios abandon proven formulas to pursue a games as service model that has higher upside, even if it often just leads to nobody playing or liking the game in the first place. There is no room for a modest success when it comes to publicly-traded companies of that size.

And that is also true of Microsoft. However, in this case the game itself can be a modest success, because the game isn’t ultimately the product. The core product Microsoft is selling is Game Pass. Hi-Fi Rush is simply an argument for Game Pass. Game Pass is sold on the idea of having a library of games readily available, including every game published by Microsoft at launch. Under this model, no game has the pressure to succeed individually, which can be liberating for developers. In an interview with Rob Zacny on Waypoint Radio, Josh Sawyer of Obsidian said that their game Pentiment (a late-medieval, point-and-click, murder-mystery without a lot of traditional commercial appeal) wouldn’t have been possible without Game Pass, saying “The old mentality of publishers and developers is generally focussed on larger investments with higher ROI, and that’s not the point in this environment, in this ecosystem.”

Every game, even the least commercial among them adds value to the service in some way. It expands and diversifies the library. There’s no science to determine exactly what will make any one person subscribe, so the point is to just cast as wide a net as possible to catch the largest number of people and also to put out quality games that get the service good press. That’s ultimately how something like Hi-Fi Rush or Pentiment gets made at a company like Microsoft in 2023.

And this is all kinda cool. Hi-Fi Rush is a good game. It deserves to exist. It deserves success. But I’m going to play the role of the cynic here for a bit and suggest that any praise for what Microsoft has done in this instance should be measured by long-term skepticism about their business strategy and what it portends for the future of game development. 

Trone Dowd in Waypoint called Hi-Fi Rush “a peek into what a more sustainable game industry can look like if bigger publishers embraced smaller, one-and-done games”. I agree that that would be more sustainable. If publishers chased more modest successes, we would get more original games that released more frequently and didn’t come with as much monetization bullshit attached. We would also probably see better working conditions and fewer layoffs (such as the ones at Microsoft that conveniently happened right before the Microsoft Direct pushed them out of the gaming news cycle). But the nature of the beast is that companies prioritize growth. Sustainability isn’t part of the conversation for companies like Ubisoft. And that sucks, and I agree with Dowd that things would be better if it was. But Microsoft isn’t valuing sustainability either through making this game. Their metrics for growth are just different.

Microsoft’s strategy of having an ever-growing library of videogames fundamentally requires having development talent to make those games.  This is something Microsoft has historically struggled with and that they have addressed in recent years by buying development studios. This started with individual development studios that have either worked with Microsoft historically or faced the issues that come with being a mid-sized independent game developer in an era where games have gotten more and more expensive (Obsidian and Double Fine being major examples of the latter). Purchases like these I think signal an issue with the lack of sustainability for independent studios, but they’re hard to get too up-in-arms about when the alternative in the current financial climate is usually studio closure.

But if you follow this news at all, you’ll know that Microsoft has expanded to purchasing full publishing stables, with Bethesda Softworks and (pending FTC investigation) Activision Blizzard. Now, I am fundamentally skeptical of corporate consolidation in all forms and always err on the side of it being a bad thing. But I do think that the position Microsoft holds in the industry currently and their current business model makes it very easy to argue that these purchases are a good thing for a lot of the reasons I already discussed. The Game Pass model hypothetically allows developers the freedom and resources to develop what they want without concerns for how well any individual game will perform. That’s great. I think that’s what every creative person would say is their dream scenario.

And that’s not necessarily something those developers had under Bethesda and Activision. Activision is notorious not only for a poor work culture but also for chasing profit at the expense of quality to an extent that outpaces the rest of the industry by-and-large. This dates all the way back to the 2000s and the Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero franchises, which saw yearly installments with diminishing returns and the eventual relegation of the studios developing those games to Call of Duty support. And this is how the company continues to operate. It is easy to see how things could be better if the company funding projects like Hi-Fi Rush or Pentiment was in charge of these studios.

And that might prove to be true. I’m not here to predict the future, just to warn against viewing this as an inherent good. Because Microsoft has for years been positioning Game Pass as the Netflix of videogames, and Netflix in 2023 is not necessarily that epitome of high quality programming and creative expression.

Netflix’s ascension in the entertainment world eventually required original programming, as the companies signing contracts with Netflix eventually all wanted their own streaming service and Netflix needed content it had full control over. And they invested primarily in things that would help build their brand and give them good press. Starting with House of Cards in 2013, Netflix gained a reputation for critically-acclaimed original programming of both film and television. They went from being a service that was a convenient way of watching something you already liked to being a service you needed to have in order to keep up with the best and most talked about things on TV.

And then they stopped giving a fuck. They eventually realized that making good programming wasn’t essential to their success. What they needed was to make programming. They prioritized quantity over quality, which gave way to a lot of mediocre and disposable Content. co-CEO and then-chief content officer Ted Sarandos laid out the strategy simply in 2018: “More shows, more watching; more watching, more subs; more subs, more revenue; more revenue, more content”. More: not better and not more sustainable. This strategy has ultimately led to content that can be produced quickly and cheaply being prioritized because quantity is all that matters. This has led to critics talking about a major quality control problem for the past five years.

Microsoft has, so far, shown an interest in investing in quality and in their developers, and that’s great. It has resulted in a lot of games that I’ve enjoyed and upcoming ones that I’m excited for. I like it when good games get made and am happy about the ones that have been made under this model. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll do this forever. Leadership can change, the economic realities can change, change can just be desired for its own sake to shake things up for investors, and we could end up with a lot of talented people at studios like Arkane being directed to make the videogame equivalent of Me Time.

And that could have happened anyway. Arkane’s games have a mixed sales track record, and Bethesda was not a charity. There’s no guarantee that the studio would have continued to have creative freedom under previous ownership or that they won’t continue to under Microsoft. I’m just arguing that when the performance of any individual game is irrelevant to the success of the business model as a whole, then the quality of any individual game is also expendable. One day the profit incentive to forgo quality in favor of quantity will be there for Microsoft as well. Right now Netflix is floundering, and a company might not want to follow their path. But someone at some level will make that pitch at some point, because the upside for the company is too high not to. And if the company ever decides to pull that lever and go through with it, maybe we’ll get editorials nostalgic for an era when we had a larger number of publishers competing with each other. I don’t know.

In the meantime, I want good games to be made, and I celebrate when they are. Creative people will always be pushing to be creative in one way or another. As long as we live in the world that we do, market forces will always be at odds with true artistic expression, and artists will always be trying fight back or squeeze through the gaps. And we should be happy when they are able to. And sometimes a company like Microsoft or Netflix will adopt a strategy that opens up more of those gaps. And that’s great. But at the end of the day, these companies are here to make a profit, not here to save art. And any artistic achievement under them should not be seen as proof that future of games is significantly brighter. Instead the same push and pull between art and capital will continue in perpetuity with minor alterations here and there.

Hi-Fi Rush is a peak into the future of gaming, but when you zoom out that future doesn’t look all too different from the present or the past.

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